How A 1968 Disaster In A Coal Mine Changed The Industry
Fifty years ago this week, 78 men were killed when a coal mine exploded in West Virginia. The Farmington Mine Disaster devastated a small town and ushered in new health and safety laws nationwide.
George Butt was in the first grade in November 1968 when his father put in his two weeks' notice at the No. 9 mine. Harold Wayne Butt had worked as a coal miner but planned to switch careers, to become a postmaster.
"They came and got me out of class and told me I had to go home," George Butt said. "Ended up finding out the tragedy when I got there."
Of the 99 miners underground that day, only 21 were able to escape. At a memorial service this week to honor the dead, George Butt's voice broke as he spoke of his father, who was 42 years old when when a series of explosions stemming from a buildup of methane gas tore through the mine.
"There's not a day that goes by," he said, trailing off. "Sorry. Yeah, it's tough. November's a very hard month."
The mine disaster drew national attention to the small town roughly 100 miles south of Pittsburgh, said Bonnie Stewart, a journalist and professor at California State University Fullerton. Her 2012 book, No.9: The 1968 Farmington Coal Mine Disaster, chronicles the explosions and their aftermath.
"It was on the nightly news. People across the world could see what had happened and what a tragedy like that looked like," said Stewart, formerly a professor at West Virginia University.
Early the next year, 40,000 West Virginia coal miners staged a wildcat strike to demand better health benefits and raise awareness about black lung disease. In Washington, widows of the late miners testified before Congress, which ultimately passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.
"It was the beginning of a real federal oversight for the health and safety of the people who go underground," Stewart said.
Under the new law, mines were subject to more federal inspections, fines for safety violations and criminal penalties for the most egregious ones. Miners disabled by black lung could receive benefits.
"By their deaths," Stewart wrote in her book, "the 78 coal miners prevented thousands of underground miners from a similar fate."
Davitt McAteer, a mine safety expert who went on to work for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration under President Clinton, grew up in nearby Fairmont, W.Va. A law student at West Virginia University in November 1968, McAteer called safety advocate Ralph Nader to ask how they might help push together for tougher health and safety standards. Nader's staff, McAteer said, helped to write the landmark 1969 law.
"It was pivotal for this industry, for the health and safety movement around the country. You saw other industries copy what the mine industry was doing in terms of education, in terms of research, in terms of regulations," McAteer said.
An annual memorial service
In Farmington, hundreds attended this year's memorial service, including West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. Manchin grew up in Farmington and lost an uncle in the mine disaster, one of many such disasters in the state's history. The No. 9 mine alone had a history of serious safety violations, and a 1954 explosion there killed 16 men.
"It's awful when you have so many tragedies that have to happen before necessary changes are made. But the miners have paid. They've paid with their sweat and their blood," Manchin said.
Nonetheless, George Butt said he still feels "bitter." His family and others are suing the mine company all these years later. Murray Energy now owns Consolidation Coal, and company attorneys have argued the Farmington families should have filed the lawsuit within two years of the disaster. Most families reached a $10,000 settlement with the coal company shortly after the explosion.
But the families say it wasn't until 2014 that they uncovered new evidence to support the latest suit: A head electrician turned off an alarm on a ventilation fan used to rid the mine of deadly methane gas. If the alarm had sounded, power to the mine would have been shut off. A 1990 federal report revealed that a build-up of methane gas caused by poor ventilation contributed to the explosion.
In 2015, a retired federal mine inspector, Larry Layne, wrote in a sworn affidavit that a mine electrician named Leonard Sacchetti told him in 1970 that Sacchetti helped the mine's head electrician, Alex Kovarbasich, disable the alarm.
Layne wrote the memo in 1970, but said in the affidavit that Sacchetti asked him not to use his name. Bonnie Stewart first uncovered Layne's memo in 2008 while researching her book, and she learned that the then-district manager for the U.S. Bureau of Mines ordered the memo to be filed away. Stewart found it at the U.S. Department of Labor mine library in Beckley, W.Va.
"It was my understanding," Layne wrote in 2015, "that Consolidated Coal Company directed Alex Kovarbasich to disconnect the [alarm] before the November 20, 1968 explosion."
Timothy Bailey, an attorney for the families, said it wasn't the memo, but the discovery that the company played a role that became his "smoking gun."
"It's the information that a member of management was involved that gave the information necessary to file the suit, and we filed the suit within two years of learning that information," he said.
But a judge threw out the lawsuit last year. The families have appealed, and earlier this year, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals asked the West Virginia Supreme Court to weigh in on the statute of limitations.